Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



Mr Loughton

  20. Let us look at Canada now, and specifically the Commissioner for the Department for Sustainable Development's role. When it was set up in 1994 the recommendation was that the Commissioner should be entirely independent of Government and separate from the Auditor General, but they actually ended up with a bit of a fudge where he reports to Parliament and the Auditor General's staff. Is that working, is that a weakened version of what should have happened or what?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) When I was in Canada I certainly found that it was perceived initially that it was a fudge and that it was a lesser model than having a completely separate environmental auditor. I spoke to the Environmental Auditor and government departments and so on, and everybody seemed to be of the opinion that it actually had not made much of a difference. The Commissioner could still be exercising an independent role and still doing as good a job as he would have done in an office separate from the Auditor General, but then there were some benefits from actually being in the Auditor General's office. For example, the Auditor General's office is considered with high esteem and so it kind of benefited from that. The high respect which the Auditor General has, the infrastructure, was already there and if there were any overlaps in their work it could be dealt with very easily and informally because they were in the same office. So there have actually been some benefits and probably not too many down-sides to that.

  21. He has more clout because he is acting on the authority of the Auditor General?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) I think that is right to some degree.

  22. How has he interpreted his remit on sustainable development?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) I think they seem to focus on the environmental side as opposed to the social side in particular. Within the office structure itself, certainly when I was over there, the Commissioner's team was made up of the team that had previously audited Environment Canada—which is the Department of Environment equivalent—and Natural Resources Canada, so he has taken on the teams within the Auditor General's office who had a prime responsibility for those departments who had the greatest impact on the environment, and he also set up a sustainable development team who looked specifically at audit and sustainable development strategies, which I think is one of the important things with the Canadian model. When the Auditor General Act was amended to create the Commissioner it required all category one federal departments to produce a sustainable development strategy. One of the important tasks of the Commissioner is to monitor and audit those strategies and look at whether they are complying with the targets set in the strategies and so on. So he has that role, and then he also has a role in environmental audits in which he will choose a subject like toxic substances—that is one thing that he has looked at—and look at that whole area across Government. The Department of Agriculture might be involved, and the Department of Health, so it is going to be a more cross-cutting issue. Then he will have what he calls a capacity-building role where he will look at working with departments to improve green environmental accounting and so on.
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) Looking at federal provincial agreements.
  (Ms Hollingsworth) That is the one. So he has that work with departments. As well as going in and auditing them, he has got much more of a relationship with helping them develop best practice as well.

  23. So it is not limited to implementation of policies as some of the other committees are, but he is looking at policy-making as it is happening, before it is implemented. How is it a preventative role as well as a monitoring auditing role when it is actually happening?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) I know that some of the people I spoke to over there did say that that was the difference between the Auditor General and the Commissioner; that the Commissioner did not just come in at the end and say, "You should have done this, you should have done that", but will work with them more closely. At the same time, though, you have to recognise that the Commissioner is independent, and must be independent, so that very clearly he could not provide an advisory service. It is about developing best practice. So it is not saying to specific departments, "You must do this, you must do that", because then when he comes in and does an audit later it questions his own independence. It is more about developing best practice, but he cannot and does not question policy, in the same way that the NAO will not question policy.

  24. How does that actually manifest itself in practice? The Education Department is drawing up plans for various types of school. How would they interact with the Commissioner's role at the outset? You say he does not have an advisory role. Can they say to him, "Look, this is what we're planning on doing; how does that fit in with your environmental benchmarking?" Again, you would say that you would not really give him a role, because he would have to write his audit report later?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) I think that would be the case.

  25. So what will he say early on?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) He will not have departments come to him and say, "How should we do X, Y and Z." What he will say is, "I'm going to look at environmental accounting, for example, and here is best practice", working with the departments, saying, "What do you do at the moment? What is done in the private sector?" and so on. I think that is what he would do, rather than it being an individual advisory role on specific issues, because that would compromise him.

  26. So he would have set down some codes of conduct for the Education Department in this case to follow when they are developing their schools policy, so that when they implement their schools policy and he audits it he can say, "Hold on, actually that's out of kilter with these general principles that I've set down at the outset", or what? I am trying to get clear exactly what he can do, rather than being this looming figure at the outset who might come down upon you with a ton of bricks later on; further upstream I want to get the details of his role.
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) Keep in mind that he is also reviewing strategy. They have submitted these forward-looking documents, so by auditing the forward-looking documents you are actually then influencing the policy within the department. Does that help a bit?

  27. I am just trying to see how it really works.
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) It is not a sustainable development unit. You cannot compare them to the Sustainable Development Unit. You cannot compare them to the Round Table for Sustainable Development, for example. They are not advisory in that specific sense. That, I think, is something that we need to retain, because obviously government departments need that sort of advice desperately, and that is quite important.

  28. Let us come on to the relationship with the federal departments. One of the criticisms which I think we would certainly agree with in one of your reports is the weaknesses of our auditing role, simply because we have not had a material audit because of the problems of departments providing it. There was a requirement, with the establishment of the Canadian Environmental Auditor, for federal governments to produce something for him actually to audit—sustainable development strategies. Is there a national sustainable development or environmental strategy in Canada, and does the Commissioner report on this?
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) There was. I assume he has reported on it.
  (Ms Hollingsworth) I do not know, actually.
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) Canada's Green Plan, I think it is called.
  (Ms Hollingsworth) I do not know.
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) I do not know what it is called—green something. I had a copy of it in my office. It existed before the Commissioner, from what I remember. I do not know whether he has audited it. I have not actually looked at the Canadian system to the same degree as Kathryn has done.
  (Ms Hollingsworth) I do not know.
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) What I can say is that in his most recent annual report the Commissioner found these strategies that the departments have had to create under the Auditor General Act to be lacking and their progress towards the targets that they have set in those strategies to be lacking. So just because you have a statutory requirement for this lofty environmental strategy, or whatever it is, does not necessarily mean you are going to improve the amount of information actually available. Therefore, if we are going to go down that route, we want to be specific and we want to make sure that there is sufficient guidance and format, if you like, and the capacity for the departments to provide that information, because again the statutory requirement on its own may not be enough.

  29. I think we would very much agree with that. There is perhaps a tendency to feel that once you have environmental policy, with a nice glossy brochure to promote it, that is the end of it, and it is not, because it is just the start of it. The Commissioner—again, this is something we would identify with here—has described some of the departmental reports as "variable in quality". When we did an audit across all the departments of government, with little ticks in boxes, there were several departments with very few ticks and one or two with several more. Is the guidance on improving these part of your criticism which you have put in your paper that audit constructs its own context?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) That can be a problem. I think that in Canada that was certainly the case. There is a Guide for Green Government which is published by the Government for the departments to take into account in their strategies and so on. The Commissioner used that as a basis on which to evaluate the strategies. I did come across criticisms that this creates a kind of checklist, as I was saying earlier. Some departments—for example, the Ministry of Defence—might have looked as though they did very well because they put their strategy in on time, they did X and they did Y, but they do not actually integrate environmental issues into their policies. So the strategy might look very good, but actually what they are doing is not. At the same time I think that at least it is a start, at least it is getting them to think about these things. You might not want to choose to have a checklist type of thing that the Commissioner did.

  30. So they put a tick in the box because their brochure was printed on recycled paper, rather than because they are encouraging environmental concerns in their defence contracts?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) Yes.

  31. How do you rate the existing auditing process in terms of improving the quality of information and the amount of information coming through? How successful has it been?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) In Canada?

  32. Yes, in Canada.
  (Ms Hollingsworth) I think the Commissioner sees the important thing as being sustainable development and the requirement on departments to produce the sustainable development strategies. The environmental audits that he is carrying out are probably not that dissimilar to what was going on before, which would be what the Auditor General would have been able to have undertaken. I think it is still important that by having a separate environmental auditor you are increasing the profile of environmental audit. Here in the United Kingdom you could have an environmental auditor doing the type of audit which the NAO and the C&AG probably could undertake under the effectiveness remit of value for money, but I do not think that goes far enough, it does not really put a duty on departments to take into account environment in their spending. Having an environmental auditor would increase the profile of Environmental Audit definitely, and it would also be very clear that the Environmental Auditor should report to this Committee rather than to the Public Accounts Committee. The PAC would be reluctant to relinquish its role from the audit, and you would increase the amount of information coming through.

  33. Finally, the so called 4th E. The Auditor General has a duty to take the environment into account in addition to the economy, efficiency and the effectiveness of the Es. Has this duty been implemented by the whole of the Auditors General's office across the whole of government, or only by the Commissioner's unit?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) I think primarily in terms of the structure and the way that the Commissioner is operating, he has got the unit who are responsible for "Environment Canada" and "Natural Resources Canada". What he tends to do is choose a subject, like toxic substances, and see where that leads him, and look at the different departments. In terms of the staff that remain under the Auditor General's remit, when I was there, which was two years ago now, they were not so much concerned with the environment, but I think there was a feeling within the office that they were hoping that by working together more they would start to consider the environment in their normal everyday VFM reports as well as having these specific environmental reports. I think that is very important too, because then it is much more integrated into all of the spending, rather than just being about specific environmental subjects.
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) Certainly the Assistant Auditor Generals do appear before the Environment Committee in Canada, and it is not as if the NAO in the UK does not do environmental audits. They have looked at environmentally sensitive areas, to give one example, so it would not be beyond the scope of anyone's imagination. Again, the document Wiring Up seems to say that that should happen anyway. I think it is actually a real sense of progress if we can get the 4th E because it brings in sustainable development, that is what it is all about, the 4 Es, to a large extent. If we can do that and audit Government on that basis then that should carry the integration process a lot further forward.
  (Ms Hollingsworth) The NAO provides reports which can be used by any Committee, but the PAC is the primary audience and it would want to remain so. That is why if you have an environmental auditor doing this, even within the NAO, then at least if that auditor was established by statute you could create a role within the statute for this Committee which would protect the Committee from being abolished without proper scrutiny for one thing, but also it would be clear then that this was the proper audience for those reports and not the PAC which has not got the expertise or the time remits to do it anyway.

Mr Grieve

  34. Can I turn to the relationship between the Commissioner and Parliament? Can you tell us a bit more about the process by which his work is considered by both the Environment Committee, to which he reports, and by Parliament as a whole? Does the Canadian Committee, for instance, examine ministers? Can you sketch in a bit of background about how that relationship works out?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) The Commissioner for the Environment and Sustainable Development is limited to reporting once a year. So, unlike where the NAO here can issue reports throughout the year to be considered, the Commissioner can only report once a year, so that report will go to Parliament and to the Committee. The witnesses are deputy ministers, which I think are civil servants, and they are the equivalent of the permanent secretary. It is then scrutinised and the Commissioner will appear alongside and be questioned at the time, at the same hearing as the deputy minister. Some people that I spoke to thought that was useful because it enables them to address the points raised by deputy ministers and stops them trying to fudge things and they can come back and say this, that or the other.

  35. They can set one off against the other.
  (Ms Hollingsworth) There is a possible potential of its being adversarial, whereas here we would be looking at the C&AG as a model to audit, he goes to PAC hearings but is not there as a witness and is not there to answer questions.

  36. Does the Canadian Committee, like us, cover a wide range of departments? Can they summon ministers from anywhere?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) They combine the departmentally related Committee, so being responsible for Environment Canada and some other agency type bodies, with their role as the audience for the Commissioner's reports. I am not entirely certain, but I am assuming that they can call people from other departments in that role.

  37. Does the federal government publish a response to a Committee report?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) I do not know.

  38. Here, as you know, we have a system by which we produce our report and then the Government produces a response subsequently.
  (Ms Hollingsworth) Yes.

  39. The Committee to which the Commissioner reports, as you rightly say, is the Environmental Committee. To what extent does the workload of that Committee reduce the Commissioner's impact in taking the sustainability agenda forward?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) I do not think it is the Committee that limits him, I think it is the fact that by statute he can only report annually. I think that is the real limitation.

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